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Giant of Azerbaijani Cinema Under Fire

Campaign appears designed to discredit major figure who has emerged as regime critic, but could backfire given his international stature.
By Maharram Zeynalov
  • Rustam Ibrahimbeyov. (Photo: Vahid Gazi)
    Rustam Ibrahimbeyov. (Photo: Vahid Gazi)

A famous Azerbaijani screenwriter, Rustam Ibrahimbeyov, has found himself the target of harassment after launching a discussion forum critical of President Ilham Aliyev.

Ibrahimbeyov, 74, is loved across the former Soviet Union as the author of the wry comedy “The White Sun of the Desert”, and is best known in the West as author of the Oscar-winning Russian film “Burnt by the Sun”.

At the start of January, according to the Turan news agency, Ibrahimbeyov was held for several hours after flying into Azerbaijan country – extremely unusual treatment for such a high-profile man. Then in the middle of January, prosecutors launched a criminal case into alleged tax evasion by Azerbaijan’s Union of Cinematographers, which Ibrahimbeyov heads. They accuse the union of failing to pay 30,000 manats, about 37,000 US dollars, in taxes on revenues from a film festival.

Last held in 2009, the East-West film festival used to attract top European film talent to Baku.

In November 2008, Ibrahimov wrote an article for in which he criticised parliament, government, and Azerbaijan’s intellectuals. Members of parliament demanded an apology, but Ibrahimbeyov refused to give one. Officials responded by putting an end to the film festival and closing his Ibrus cinema.

In 2011, he founded the Intellectuals’ Forum, which brought together writers, academics, composers and rights activists.

Pro-government news sources including, and the Baku Post responded by accusing him of a lack of patriotism, of destroying the Union of Cinematographers, of having psychological problems, and more.

On January 19 this year, Ibrahimbeyov announced that he was creating a political movement called EL to campaign for free and fair elections. The same day, he left the country.

“The dirty tricks campaign against Ibrahimbeyov began a long time ago, as a result of his active civic stance,” EL’s co-founder Eldar Namazov said. “The [Intellectuals’] Forum grew into an influential organisation, and this seriously alarmed our government. The organisation’s members are under pressure. We’ve seen a criminal case about unpaid taxes and the smear campaigns on television, and the Union of Cinematographers lost its headquarters on January 23.”

Namazov said EL was concerned that most Azerbaijanis had given up on politics life and just went about their business, despite the best efforts of opposition parties.

“Organisational work to establish our movement is under way,” he said. “The aim of the movement is to galvanise society. In my view, we will achieve this aim if all independent political forces combine their efforts.”

Hikmet Hajizade, a member of the ruling council of the opposition Musavat party, spoke approvingly of Ibrahimbeyov.

“For almost his entire life, Ibrahimbeyov was a conformist, and it’s only in his old age that some civic sense has awoken in him,” he said. “I strongly commend Ibrahimbeyov’s actions over the last few years, and I can also see the government’s campaign against him. Perhaps Ibrahimbeyov is the hero of our time.”

Hajizade believes Ibrahimbeyov could prove a useful leader for attracting more people to the opposition’s cause.

“I’m referring to the most passive section of society, the indecisive conformists, people who are like the way Ibrahimbeyov was until recently,” he said. “He will attract the silent majority and give them to understand that they don’t have to sit quietly.”

Natig Jafarli, a member of REAL, an opposition political movement created three years ago, said it was unfair to criticise Ibrahimbeyov for having once been close to the government. He compared him with intellectuals in Russia who thought President Vladimir Putin would turn out to be a liberal reformer, and only gradually turned against him.

“It’s the same here with Aliyev. When the new president arrived, some intellectuals placed their hopes in him, but as time went by, these hopes were dashed. Ibrahimbeyov and many others thought that Ilham Aliyev, as a young president, would introduce new reforms, but the situation with freedom of speech and democracy has become worse,” Jafarli said.

Ilham Aliyev was elected president in 2003, the same year that his father Heydar Aliyev died after running Azerbaijan on and off since the late 1960s.

“Starting off with relatively mild criticism, Ibrahimbeyov came to realise that it wasn’t officials who were responsible for what was happening in the country, but the president,” Jafarli said.

He argues the government could end up shooting itself in the foot if it maintains its campaign against Ibrahimbeyov.

“Ibrahimbeyov is a man with a global reputation, which means that the more that happens to him, the more attention is going to be paid to Azerbaijan and to what’s happening here.”

Officials deny that they are running a campaign against the screenwriter.

Speaking last year, Ali Hasanov, who is head of the presidential administration’s political department, dismissed Ibrahimbeyov as an irrelevance.

“Rustam Ibrahimbeyov thinks that because he’s made one or two films, then the whole of Azerbaijani society should be grateful to him and should await what he does next. But that isn’t the case,” he said.

Maharram Zeynalov is an IWPR reporter in Azerbaijan.

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